There is a strong current of opinion in the US and around the world that, because Morsi was freely elected, any attempt to remove him, other than through the ballot box, is a fundamental violation of democratic principles.
If Morsi were governing in the US or Europe or any of a number of long-standing democratic countries around the world, I would concur. However, IMHO, Morsi's Egypt fits into a special category - countries that are struggling to institute democracy for the first time in many years (if ever). Countries in this condition are especially vulnerable to a tragic syndrome.
Their first election may be their last.
If that thought is provocative, follow me over the orange squiggle.
First, let me establish my perspective on democracy. Many believe that democracy=elections. In our well-established system, that is a pretty close match.
However, I believe that it is the underlying democratic institutions that are the true soul of democracy - its not just elections. The democratic institutions (constitution, rule of law, and checks and balances) provide the stable platform that guarantee all elections, now and in the future, will be fair. If the elections are reliably fair, then elected representatives will remain accountable, whatever they do. And accountability is the pulsing heartbeat of democracy. If elected officials are no longer accountable, democracy dies.
For countries that are newbies, the first election is just the start of the process. They have to prove that their democratic institutions can survive making a bad choice. They have to prove that their system will ultimately hold the elected officials to account. If that underlying system breaks down, the first elected representative can easily transform into a despot.
This is not hypothetical. History is full of examples of democratically elected leaders who evolved into tyrants:
- Hitler - yes I had to go here, because this is history's most extreme case. Hitler was elected in 1933. His party won the most seats, but didn't win a majority. When he was appointed chancellor in a minority government, he called for new elections and mounted a ruthless campaign against opponents, partly with the help of the new power of the Chancellorship. Democracy never appeared again in Germany until after his death.
- Mugabe - Robert Mugabe was elected as a beloved figure with great popular support. He ended up as a hated and despised despot. He gradually used his elected power to corrupt and brutalize the country.
- Marcos - Ferdinand Marcos was first elected as an idolized figure of the resistance against the Japanese in WWII. When he was ousted in 1986, his government was synonymous with corruption and repression.
In these and other cases, a relatively fair and free election placed a country in the hands of someone who quickly (Hitler) or slowly (Mugabe, Marcos) destroyed the country's underlying democratic institutions.
Kossacks rightly decry this process when it occurs (albeit at a smaller, slower pace) in our system. Tom Delay, Scott Walker, and Rick Scott were all elected in free, fair elections. As much as we may detest their policies, it was their use of their elected power to attack legitimate political opponents and democratic institutions (gerrymandering, direct attacks on unions, voter registration abuse) that really enrages us.
So what does that say about Morsi and Egypt? If you look at the 12 months that Morsi was in office, several of his actions leap out at me. As a caveat, I don't read Arabic and I didn't follow Egypt closely over the last year, so this is just my best take from recent reading. If the facts are different, please share the right ones in the comments.
- Last August, he announced that he would no longer be bound by restrictions that were placed on the presidency from the earlier military-managed constitutional process. The source of that constitution might be suspect, but a unilateral declaration of non-compliance is not very democratic way to fix it.
- During the period where Egypt didn't have a working parliament, Morsi declared that he had the authority both administer the country and create new legislation. The second claim was seen as problematic in many circles. A president imposing executive orders is one thing. A president installing permanent (unless later repealed) new laws is quite another.
- In November 2012, Morsi issued a declaration that, in effect, immunised his actions from any legal challenge. The decree stated that it only applied until a new constitution was ratified, but that level of power would have given him the ability to strongly "guide" the constitutional drafting process. Opponents were concerned that some very bad things could happen.
Was Morsi really trying to dismantle democracy now that he had been elected? Did Egypt just dodge a new era of despotic rule?
Were Morsi's actions just reasonable responses to the chaos that comes with an untested democratic system? Did Egypt bail out of the democratic process when it faced its first crisis?
These questions are not just relevant to Egypt. We could legitimately have asked the similar questions about Chavez in Venezuela and we can ask them now about Erdogan in Turkey. These weren't winners of initial elections, but they were benefits of totally sea-changing elections that changed the political landscapes of their countries. Not quite the same, but similar.
More generally, how do we feel about the potential for democratically elected despots? How far are we prepared to stray from strict adherence to democratic institutions to prevent them from occurring?